I am a woman, a singer, a pilgrim on the starlit path of salvation. Music is my pilgrimage and destination is divinity. I live to transcend one boundary to another in the quest of the sur—the nectar of singing,” says Sunanda Patnaik, the iconoclastic Hindustani vocalist known for her off-the-track renditions in music as well as in her life. She recently performed at the 64th Yoginis Music Festival in Odisha.
Patnaik travels the path, never bothering much about awards and recognitions. One of the finest offshoots of the Gwalior Gharana, Sunanda is relentless in her pursuit of the divinity. At 79, she jets between Puri and Kolkata where she runs two classical music institutions but has not ceased to be a student herself. Born in Cuttack, a city cozily nestled in the embrace of Kathajodi and Mahanadi, the two mighty rivers, she has imbibed the spirit of the rivers in her persona and continues to flow. Her father Baikunthanath Patnaik was a sagacious Odia poet. His poems ignited her soul. Choosing music as a passion was unthinkable for a girl from her background.
“Can music give you a square meal, challenged my maternal uncle over a tussle. Befuddled I said, I don’t know if it would but I would make it my devotion. My grandfather opposed the idea as well, saying that music was practised by the prostitutes. I said, so be it! I don’t mind to being a domestic help to a courtesan and learn music in return. There ended every reservation and I took my first baby step in music,” says Sunanda. Young Sunanda charmed everyone with her mellifluous voice and brilliant presence. Not just a singer, she was equally good as a composer. The then governor of Odisha Dr Asaf Ali invited her to present a concert in honour of Dr Rajendra Prasad, then President of India, on his visit to Odisha. It opened up the road for her eventful musical voyage. She was sent to Pune to learn Hindustani music from Pt Binayak Rao Pattvardhan, the famous maestro of Gwalior Gharana. She never confirmed to any provincial identity. Music, according to her, is trans-lingual and not circumscribed by the pettiness of provincialism.
Hounded by the parochial groups for choosing Hindustani to Odishi, she remained always in the eyes of storm. Sunanda went on to perform in every celebrated show in India and across the globe.
She went on to create nine new raagas. From the famous Nilamadhab to Subarnamukhi, the Ragas were composed from an ordinary vision and created an extraordinary musical élan. From the ruins of an abandoned temple she was blessed with a visual of an ancient face wearing a pair of huge golden ear-rings, splendid and animated. That moved her to create Raaga Subarnamukhi. Nilamadhab enlivens the spiritual narratives of tribal god Nilamadhab becoming Sri Jagannath, an abstract narrative neatly portrayed blending the high and low notes in a delicate musical pattern. Later, her life became the subject of a documentary Nilamadhab which got the National Award in 2010.
She now spends her time in teaching music, writing poetry and composing. “Give awards to them who are hungry for it,” she thunders. She adds, “It took me long to realise that music is not an act but a journey towards the sublimity of your inner soul.”